Beware of politicians palming us off with their questionable actions - Brian Monteith

Actions have consequences and that is especially so in politics. Then again, inactions also have consequences, so it is often a fine line that politicians have to tread. And then there are unintended consequences, which can often be even worse than what was planned.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should have condemned all the behaviour outside the Perth hustings, says Brian Monteith
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should have condemned all the behaviour outside the Perth hustings, says Brian Monteith

We saw these observable laws in full Technicolour with the verbal and physical abuse directed at Conservatives attending their leadership hustings in Perth last week, but there are other examples I must first mention too, because it points to a defect in how today’s media-driven politicians behave.

The great American satirist, H.L. Mencken, was I believe, absolutely on the money when he said, “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

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Politicians believe if they can propose a solution to the clamour they have encouraged then they will be rewarded by votes. Election-winning piles of them.

For instance, when it comes to the cost of rented housing they seek to introduce more controls and limitations on the landlords rather than expand the availability of rented accommodation they have previously already helped restrict (and thus cause a shortage).

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Shortages in a static, or worse, growing market cause price rises. Regulations that cause further expense and burdens to landlords cause them to withdraw their properties from the market, so prices rise further. It did not take long for the Scottish Parliament to make it harder for landlords to make a profit from their properties and the (unintended) consequence is rents have increased – requiring further interventions that only increase rents further.

There is no country in the world that has not introduced rent controls without seeing the availability of property decline, the rented housing stock deteriorate, and rentals rise.

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Likewise, in the many environmental hobgoblins, there is some alarm about Palm Oil being used in 50 per cent our everyday foods. The clearing of forests by farmers in Asia is, it is claimed, a threat to our environment and the habitats of Orangutans and Elephants. There is every reason to be concerned – but is the boycotting of all Palm Oil by the Scottish (or any) Government the answer?

Why should we ignore the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) saying palm oil can contribute to sustainability if it’s managed properly? Did you know 90 per cent of the palm oil imported into Europe is Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, which means there is no damage or impact to primary forest, natural habitats or local communities and cultures?

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Globally, “palm oil supplies 40 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6 per cent of the land used to produce all vegetable oils”, according to the WWF. Which is why it says, “To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean, coconut, or sunflower oil you would need anything between 4 and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats, species and communities.” In fact WWF says “Boycotting palm oil is not the answer.”

You can see the unintended consequences of politicians acting by saying they’ve banned (even sustainable) palm oil – only to contribute to even greater forest clearance by farmers looking to survive.

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Back to the behaviour at Perth, where in gathering to make their voices heard, various protesters went well beyond the boundaries protecting freedom of association and freedom of speech.

Ordinarily, spitting on anyone in the street should surely be treated as an assault, not least in this age where we are aware of various diseases easily transmittable through bodily fluids? Spitting on people entering a building for a perfectly peaceful and legitimate gathering for a cause you do not support surely, however, carries malevolent intent?

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Verbal abuse that carries the threat of physical violence clearly descends into intimidation, especially if physical contact takes place. Grabbing a lady’s clothing – as has been claimed – only compounds this. In Perth such abuses are reported to have happened – in a public area I would expect to be covered by CCTV and today’s police might record on their body cameras.

And yet the police decided to take no action. No arrests or a caution. The consequence of this inaction will be this disgraceful behaviour will be repeated.

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Clearly the human rights of the aggressors and not the victims are what takes priority over behaviour which in the past would surely have been treated as a Breach of the Peace?

Does such flagrantly and belligerent behaviour not cause distress and alarm among the public enduring it?

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The First Minister, to her credit, condemned the abuse given to the BBC’s James Cook and defended the rights of journalists to go about their business reporting without fear of verbal intimidation.

To her discredit the First Minister did not defend the rights of assembly or participating in free speech of Conservatives without fearing the same abuse Cook received. Frankly that is nothing other than shameful.

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Actions and inactions have consequences, and often the outcomes are unintended.

Our politicians – and yes, especially nationalist ones – need to pull back from their flagrant belligerence. Ridicule is to be expected – it makes a point quickly and effectively – but no-one can expect inaction regarding abuse that becomes intimidation to have anything other than bad consequences.

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Sadly, by its demonisation of the opposition the Scottish Government is well on the way to making Scotland so embittered as to become ungovernable without verbal and physical abuse becoming commonplace.

Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and is editor of ThinkScotland.org

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